Grammar-ease: Active voice versus passive voice

I’m skipping the introduction this month. If you’re curious about previous grammar post introductions, please search older posts.

The introduction is being skipped this month. The older posts can be checked for previous grammar post introductions.

Did you just do a double take? The first two paragraphs are similar. Other than being repetitious, can you pick out which of the two paragraphs above contains active voice? Which one moves you right along? Which one has you yawning?

 

This month’s grammar tip investigates the difference between active voice and passive voice. It’s common to hear the rule ‘avoid passive voice.’ If you’re a writer, it’s a good rule to follow if you want to keep your reader engaged. There are times, however, when passive voice is fine. Honest. Read on.

Active voice is dynamic and the ‘doer’ of the action is obvious. Passive voice is, well, laid back and can leave questions in the reader’s mind as to who is doing what. The time to use passive voice is when you want to emphasize results instead of who achieved those results.

Check out the following examples and see what you think (passive is listed first).

  • The ball was kicked.
  • Scott kicked the soccer ball.
  • The limo was driven by Mr. Boyd.
  • Mr. Boyd drove the empty limo into a house.
  • The project was managed effectively.
  • Shelly and her team brought the project in under budget and ahead of schedule.
  • The computer was repaired.
  • I fixed my computer.

The following are examples of where you may find passive voice to be the preferred voice:

  • My advice was followed.
  • My students followed my advice.
  • The water was heated to 185 degrees.
  • She heated the water to 185 degrees.
  • The convenient store was robbed.
  • Unknown persons robbed the convenient store.

The overall rule for choosing active or passive is to use what best says what you mean.

If you have grammar topics you’d like to see covered, please leave a comment about it.

Lisa Jackson is an independent editor, writer, journalist, and chocolate lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis! © Lisa J. Jackson, 2011

23 thoughts on “Grammar-ease: Active voice versus passive voice

  1. The passive voice is my biggest pet peeve as a French-to-English translator. I think public servants often use it as an escape clause, to shirk responsibility by conveniently not mentioning who is doing what (and to whom). It makes translation more difficult because you have to ask yourself, “Who is the unspoken subject of the sentence?” I’m not saying all sentences have to follow the subject-verb-object format, or that everyone should write primer English. But I do think people should avoid the passive voice whenever they possibly can.

  2. Pingback: A Camping Trip is Being Gone on by Me | The Daily Post at WordPress.com

  3. My general rule has been to use the passive if:

    1. You don’t know who did it. – “My bicycle was stolen [but I don’t know by whom].”
    2. It’s really obvious who did it. – “The guy who stole my bicycle was arrested [by the police, of course, which pretty much goes without saying. Who else is going to arrest him?]
    3. What was done is more important or needs more emphasis than who or what did it – When I got my bicycle back, it had been covered with My Little Pony decals [and I know who did it, but I don’t care about him anymore – I care about my bike!]

    Or any combination of the three. And there are always exceptions, of course, but these are the guidelines I teach my ESL students.

  4. Sometimes I find myself using active voice and passive voice in the same paragraph, or different paragraphs in the same article. Is this ok, or do we need to maintain consistency throughout the article?

    • I believe consistency is always best whenever possible. However, it’s common to see a mix of passive and active in the same paragraphs. There are just times when passive voice works best – Chris’s examples above about when to use passive are helpful.

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